The Sermon on the Mount—Prolonged Anger Can Be Deadly
AFTER stating that he had come, not to destroy, but to fulfill God’s law, Jesus linked prolonged wrath with murder. He began by saying: “You heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You must not murder; but whoever commits murder will be accountable to the court of justice.’”—Matt. 5:21.
The phrase “You heard that it was said” can refer both to things stated in the inspired Hebrew Scriptures and to teachings of Jewish tradition. (Matt. 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43; John 12:34) A law describing murder as a capital offense was indeed known “to those of ancient times,” that is, persons of generations previous to Jesus’ day. In fact, such a law can be traced back to the time of Noah.—Gen. 9:5, 6; Ex. 20:13; 21:12; Lev. 24:17.
Being “accountable to the court of justice” meant being sentenced by one of “the local courts” (Greek, synedria, “Lesser Sanhedrins”) located throughout the land of Palestine. (Matt. 10:17; Deut. 16:18) Jewish tradition gives the number of judges in these courts as 23 in cities with an adult male population of 120 or more.* Proven murderers suffered the death penalty. In the time of Jesus, however, Jewish courts had to seek authorization for capital punishment from Roman officials.—John 18:31.
Jesus pointed out that God can view someone as deserving capital punishment, even though that one did not actually commit murder. Speaking authoritatively as one directly sent by God, Jesus declared: “However, I say to you that everyone who continues wrathful with his brother will be accountable to the court of justice.”—Matt. 5:22a.
“Everyone who continues wrathful with his brother,” according to Jesus, is as guilty before God as one convicted of murder. This is because allowing wrath to smolder in one’s bosom is really hatred of one’s fellowman, and “everyone who hates his brother is a manslayer.” (1 John 3:15) While individuals may justly become angry or indignant on occasion, prolonged wrath against one’s brother or fellowman can be deadly to both.—Mark 3:5; Eph. 4:26; Jas. 1:19, 20.
“Whoever addresses his brother with an unspeakable word of contempt,” continued Jesus, “will be accountable to the Supreme Court.” (Matt. 5:22b) “An unspeakable word of contempt” translates the Greek word raca, which is derived from Hebrew and means “empty-headed,” “blockhead,” “numskull.” What is God’s view of a person who, not only nurtures murderous hatred and anger in his heart, but gives vent to it by contemptible speech?
According to Jesus, such a one bears a measure of guilt comparable to that of one convicted and sentenced to death by the Jewish “Supreme Court.” That was the main Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, made up of “the chief priests [those who had oversight of priestly functions at the temple] with the older men and the scribes.” (Mark 15:1) This legislative body, which reportedly numbered 71 judges, handled only cases of exceptional gravity or complexity and heard appeals from lower courts.*
Jesus then went a step farther, saying: “Whoever says, ‘You despicable fool!’ will be liable to the fiery Gehenna.” (Matt. 5:22c) The Greek word rendered “you despicable fool” is mōré. A similar-sounding Hebrew term (moreh) means “rebellious,” “mutinous.” Whereas raca suggests intellectual stupidity, mōré designates one as morally worthless, an apostate and rebel against God. In his Hebrew and Talmudical Exercitations, John Lightfoot points out: “‘Raca’ denotes indeed ‘morosity, and lightness of manners and life:’ but ‘fool’ judgeth bitterly of the spiritual and eternal state, and decreeth a man to certain destruction.”
Persons who would denounce their fellow in such a way would be “liable to the fiery Gehenna.” Here Jesus refers to the Valley of Hinnom (Hebrew, Gei Hinnom) near Jerusalem, which became a garbage dump where fires continually burned to consume refuse and carcasses that were thrown into it. According to the Greek Lexicon by Liddell and Scott, in that valley “the corpses of the worst malefactors were burnt.” If the fires of Gehenna did not wholly consume those carcasses, worms and maggots that bred there would finish the job.—Isa. 66:24; Mark 9:47, 48.
Jesus used Gehenna as a fitting symbol of eternal destruction. Since a person who would condemn his fellow as a “despicable fool” worthy of Gehenna would be desiring everlasting destruction for that one, from God’s standpoint the one uttering such a condemnation brings that severe sentence upon himself.—Compare Deuteronomy 19:17-19.
Josephus states that the local courts had only seven judges, each judge, however, having two Levites for assistants.—Antiquities of the Jews, Book IV, Chapter VIII, section 14.
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says concerning the main Sanhedrin in Jerusalem: “At the head of the body, which convened in the boule [council chamber] . . . stood the high-priest. He was the leader of the Jewish people; he alone could preside in the Sanhedrin. Around him were the archiereis [chief priests], the priestly aristocracy, Sadducean in sympathy. By virtue of their office the chief priests in the temple had a seat and voice in the Sanhedrin and they formed a solid faction. The elders were a second group. It is true that originally all members of the gerousia [assembly of older men] were called elders. Gradually, however, this term acquired a more restricted sense, so that only readers of the influential lay families in Jerusalem were called presbyteroi [elders]. Without exception these patricians, too, were Sadducean in persuasion. The Pharisees managed to get into the High Council in the days of Queen Alexandra [76-67 B.C.E]. From then on the power and influence of the grammateis [scribes] grew steadily in the Sanhedrin. In the Roman period the archiereis [chief priests] were still first in rank, but in fact decisions could not be taken or executed without the agreement of the Pharisaic scribes.”